Iraq's Baath Problem

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Like many Iraqi army officers, Abu Laith (the alias of a Baath Party member from Fallujah and former captain in Saddam's 6th Armored Division) found himself out of a job when the U.S. dissolved both the Baath Party and the Iraqi military in 2003. His army commission and party membership, formerly twin keys to success in the old Iraq, were now liabilities. For months, he stayed in his house, depressed. "Iraqis thought it was a great honor to be an officer in the army," he said. "I'd lost my honor."

He got it back last year, when his former commander called him back to service. The Americans and Iyad's Allawi interim government decided they needed experienced people, no matter their former affiliations, for help in fighting a rapidly metastasizing insurgency.

But now, Abu Laith and up to 9,000 other commanders, soldiers, cops, spies and other members of the security forces tasked with battling insurgents face a second cleansing of their ranks. The Transitional Iraqi Government headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a religious Shi'ite, alleges that there's a growing threat from these returned Baathists, and members of his party have pledged to reverse Allawi's plans to include these men in the security services.

"People who have been senior members of the previous regime cannot be entrusted to protect the population," Hussein al-Sharhistani, a deputy speaker of the parliament, told TIME. "I cannot see how they can serve in any senior position."

Still, it's unclear how many former Baathists are actually in senior positions in the new Iraqi Army. Records from the previous regime are spotty, and a U.S. Army spokesman said the Americans don't have reliable figures for the number of former regime soldiers and commanders now serving. Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress Party claims that there are about 9,000 members of the military and security services who are former Baathists. With Chalabi being mentioned as the next deputy Prime Minister for Security, many current members of the Iraqi security services who were Baathists are getting nervous. "Not every officer was pro-Saddam," said Gen. Adnan Thabit, who left Saddam's army and the party in 1984, dismayed over the direction Saddam was taking. Today he commands the Ministry of Interior's Special Forces. From his office decorated with pictures of himself with Jay Garner, the first U.S. Iraq administrator, he boasted that two-thirds of his current 12,000-man force were either Iraqi Special Forces or otherwise in the security services. Many of these men "became Baathists by force," he said, because to advance in the army — and in most of Iraqi society — party membership was mandatory.

The U.S. would like to avoid a Baathist purge, in part because the Bush Administration doesn't want to see two years of work building up the security forces erased. "We want to see the Iraqi security forces take a bigger role this year and we're working very hard to get them trained to do that," said a U.S. official in Baghdad. "Part of that is training a professional cadre and purging these people without reference to their loyalty now or their competence will set that back." To back up their words, the official said the U.S. could remind the Iraqis that the U.S. has spent $5 billion on training these guys and "it's perfectly within bounds to say we don't want them changed." The White House even dispatched Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Iraq last week to deliver private warnings to Prime Minister Jaafari and other leaders that Washington did not want a mass purge.

The U.S. is also worried that deep de-Baathification would worsen Iraq's sectarian divisions. While the current Shi'ite and Kurdish leadership spent much of the Saddam years in exile, Sunni leaders stayed and took part in the regime. Iraq's new leaders, who have long memories of the oppression of their people by an Iraqi military largely commanded by Sunni officers, view many Sunnis with suspicion and it's the Sunnis' turn to be nervous. "They do not mean 'Baathists'," said Abu Laith, the Iraqi captain. "They mean Sunnis."

Such talk is alarming American officials who say that purging former regime members from government and army service would set back efforts to include disaffected Sunnis in the political process and bleed the insurgency of military talent. They worry that the unemployed officers will be thrown into the arms of an insurgency they were hired to fight and that a precedent would be set for purging the army's command ranks whenever power changes in Baghdad.

After a violent week in Iraq, which saw a spike in attacks and car bombings, a civilian helicopter shot down with 11 killed, 20 Iraqi troops taken from their trucks and executed near the western city of Haditha and a number of bodies fished from the Tigris south of Baghdad, losing experienced officers to a newly energized insurgency is not something the Americans want to see. But Abu Laith is ready to fight for the insurgency if the Shi'ite leadership comes for him. "We are professional men and we know how to fight," he said. "If the government has 1,000 enemies now, they will have 10,000 enemies. We are fighting for our lives."